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Farewell: Joe Sample

2.1.39–9.12.14

Joe Sample
Joe Sample and Randy Crawford

Piano players don’t very often get to know each other as well as players of other instruments because there’s only one per gig. But through various mutual friends Joe Sample and I did meet, and at some point I decided I would try to create a way for Joe and I to work together. I was doing an album that ended up being 2001’s Dancing on the Water. It had started out as a solo piano project, but I wasn’t really comfortable with being alone so I decided to do some duets and I asked Joe. He had a reputation for being very specific about his taste and what he did and didn’t want to do, so I was flattered that he accepted my offer. I’d written a couple of tunes with him in mind and we did them in New York and it was fun and he was very cooperative.

When I listened to Joe Sample play, he inspired me to dig deeper. It always felt to me that every note meant something to him. I could feel it when I listened to his touch, the way he went from one note to the next. It was very deliberate; he was very rhythmic, and there was a strong feeling about where the pulse and the groove were on every note. I always responded to his minimalism; he was very much a single-note type of player as a soloist, which I totally related to. He didn’t solo in a flashy, virtuosic style, and I’ve always tried to approach the piano the same way, rather than playing a whole lot of notes.

We were pretty parallel in age, and in the ’70s we were going through the same thing at the same time, hearing the differences in the way drummers were playing and the shift from acoustic bass to electric bass and rock rhythms finding their way in. These changes were happening to Joe in his way and happening to me in mine, but we were both influenced by the Fender Rhodes and both called upon to play it. I discovered that I could play the Rhodes in a way that had a distinctive feeling, but ultimately we both ended up coming back to the big instrument, the grand piano.

Joe was outrageous. He was maybe the funniest guy I’ve known. He was very colorful in his language-and brutal in some ways about other musicians and other music that didn’t live up to his standards. But it was all done with this sense of humor that you couldn’t resist. He would say the most outrageous things to the guys who played with him. I only heard most of the stories after the fact, but I know that he had a reputation for being extremely tough on drummers when they weren’t giving him what he was looking for. Not like Buddy Rich, who didn’t have much of a sense of humor about it [when he criticized his musicians]-Joe was laughing at the same time that he was coming up with every profanity he could think of.

But underneath, [his criticism] had a little bit of that Miles Davis thing in which he was calling upon his sidemen to raise their standards, to play better: “Come on, give me more! What else you got?” I think he had a very strong ego as a leader and knew exactly what he wanted. He went for it, and if the drummer or the bass player weren’t giving it to him, he would not hesitate to give it right back to them. So the one time I had a chance to work with him one on one, I was a little bit afraid that he was going to launch into me. But I got off lightly! [As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Originally Published